In 2006 when I first met Julian Darley, author of _High Noon for Natural Gas_ and the founder of the Post-Carbon Institute, the world was excited by then-famous “Jack” oil field find in the Gulf of Mexico. Both of us were watching the way the world was interpreting the data – people were claiming that there might be 10, 12, 15 billion barrels of oil – five miles down underneath the ocean. The media was excited, ignoring the fact that large oil field potential reserves are routinely revised – and almost always downwards. The public and the media, without enough knowledge of oil production assumed that the “Jack” find reserves were substantiated, realistic, and practically here. They missed the part about a decade to bring the field fully online, the enormous sums of money involved, and the huge technical challenges of drilling five miles under the ocean. Darley, framing the issue brilliantly, observed that “this isn’t salvation, this is digging around in the couch cushions for loose change.”
We’ve now learned (the hard way) a great deal more about the possible costs and hazards of deep water drilling, but most of us haven’t learned the essential things we need to know about energy resources, including the fact that oil discovery peaked decades ago, and that our current oil situation pretty much is digging in the couch cusions..
Unless you’ve heard the words “peak oil” and had some reason to investigate them, and found yourself launched into a crash course on drilling rigs, geological formations, tar sands, unconventional oil and liquids, seawater pumping and extraction technologies (and how many people do that), it is really hard to understand why so many people are so very worried about our energy resources. Indeed, it is more than that – the knowledge that a solar panel isn’t equivalent to a barrel of oil in any easy way is counter-intuitive, as are many other necessary concepts.
The idea that nations and institutions routinely inflate their reserves for political and economic gain isn’t too shocking – but most people assume that oil reserves are easily fact checked, and that agencies with the word “International” in them are confirming these facts. That we aren’t, and in fact that the most famous of these, the IEA was recently accused by a whistleblower of inflating reserves under pressure from the US and other nations not to cause economic panic, is not something everyone knows. So when a company says “billions of barrels” we relax, secure in the knowledge that those crazy people who say the oil might end must be wrong, and think that oil can’t really be a problem.
Last night, Barack Obama actually came close to talking about peak oil. He didn’t use the words, but he used the language that peak oil analysts have been using for years, and it was clearly implied. He said:
One of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling. But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk. After all, oil is a finite resource. We consume more than 20% of the world’s oil, but have less than 2% of the world’s oil reserves. And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean – because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.
For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.
The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.
We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.
Obama here begins to make mainstream some very basic concepts. First, that deepwater drilling is simply not the same thing as sinking a well on land into proven reserves – it is a much chancier and costlier experience, and depends, among other things, on high energy prices. He uses the language of the end of cheap oil. He points out that we’ve been talking about a transition to renewables for decades but haven’t gotten very far, and that we have to make substantial changes quickly. He even mentions WWII and acknolwedges there will be costs to this shift.
What Obama doesn’t get (or doesn’t think we’re ready for) is the other 90% of the relevant knowledge. That starting a transition to renewable energies now, 30+ years after we should have, has real costs – and presents real limitations of what we can potentially replace. Obama leaves out the insights of the Department of Energy’s “Hirsch Report” which observed that a smooth and stable transition to renewables would take 20 full years *before* the oil began to peak.
Obama isn’t ready to admit what his own Army knows – in the JOE report released this spring, the US Army warned of a peak oil crisis – and soon. Their projected rapidity of scenarios for a PO transition should highlight the reality that we simply aren’t going to replace this quantity of oil with renewables in 2-5 years.
By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day,” says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.
It adds: “While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India.”
Obama doesn’t explain that most renewables are less energy-dense than oil or natural gas – that it isn’t a 1-1 transition, one solar panel or wind turbine for X barrels of oil, but that we need more renewables, and have to run faster and faster to keep up. Obama doesn’t explain that at every stage in the renewable transition, we depend on stable prices for oil, coal and natural gas – that we don’t make solar panels with solar panels, but with fossil fuels, and that shifts in price can change the economic equation dramatically.
It would have been too much to ask for all this information – the best presidential speeches are pithy. And it would also be too much to ask Obama to admit that it is only now, when people are asking “where the heck were you during this spill” that he’s committing publically to fulfilling his promises, only now that he’s talking about our energy limits, after approving increased offshore drilling and discussing the way the magic oil off our coasts would fix our problems. It is only now that we’ve already started sacrificing that he’s ready to call for sacrifice. And it all depends on language that implies that we can keep everything largely the way we want it to be – that costs will be largely economic, that a clean energy economy is something that will look like our own, that this isn’t going to hurt too badly, that the economy can recover and we can have a low-cost transition and a “victory” that gets us all the things we dream of.
And there was a time when all that was true. When Jimmy Carter was making essentially the same speech Obama just did, only in a cardigan, that was entirely feasible. It was almost certainly doable in the 1980s, and probably into the early 1990s. Now it is not. And Obama didn’t tell us about the most basic problem – that the speech he just gave is precisely the kind of speech that has been part of the process of not doing anything. That when George W. Bush said we had to get off foreign oil, and Bill Clinton said we had to get off foreign oil that they too talked about clean energy economies and incentives and making a better world for our kids.
And it isn’t that they didn’t necessarily even mean it. It is that the oil-addicted culture of America is so deeply dependent on fossil fuels and the economic growth they power that no leader, left or right has ever been able to figure out how to do this shift meaningfully – once we passed the critical moments at which we could have powered a smooth transition, the reality of making words energy – the economic and personal costs, the change required in our culture, those were too big to conquer.
The speech that needs to be given hasn’t happened yet, and every year it gets harder to give. It begins with the classic acknowledgement that good physicians give “this is going to hurt.” And it explains why – why the greater good comes from endurance. It begins acknowledging that everyone wasted a golden opportunity, and that now our choices are governed by material physical realities – that we face the pain of living with what is possible, rather than what is desirable. It includes both a call to build what renewable energies we can, and also the acknowledgement that we will not be living anything like the present American way of life. It involves a real call to sacrifice – the kind of sacrifice past generations endured in incredibly difficult times, the kinds of sacrifice that cost them a great deal, but for a vastly greater goal. It probably involves unpalatable words like “rationing.” It will involve admitting fault and responsibility, and then moving on, telling the public what they need to know, but also engaging them in the project of creating a future for their children and grandchildren.
Winston Churchill could have given that speech – in fact, he did, among other times in his “Be Ye Men of Valor” speech - with its blunt acknowledgement of the deep unlikelihood of success and the odds against them, it helped galvanize everyone into great sacrifice at great stakes.
Our task is not only to win the battle – but to win the war. After this battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island — for all that Britain is, and all the Britain means. That will be the struggle. In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable. The interests of property, the hours of labor, are nothing compared with the struggle of life and honor, for right and freedom, to which we have vowed ourselves.
Abraham Lincoln could give that speech, indeed, he did in his Second Inaugural Address:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Unfortunately, it remains to be seen as yet whether any man or any woman can give that speech in this generation and before the realities thrust upon us make our speeches moot.